War Games on the Prairie 

From 1963 to 1993, soldiers went underground every day in remote locations around the U.S. not knowing whether this would be the day they would start a nuclear war. 

It was a peacekeeping mission, according to the military. Thousands of miles away, in the Soviet Union, missiles with the same capability of destruction were aimed at cities throughout the U.S.

In many ways, it was the 20th century’s most dangerous game of chess: a constant build-up of weaponry, with each side determined to keep up with the other. A miscalculation on either side could have started the next world war.

These tensions began in the years following World War II, culminating in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. My mother, who was just an elementary student at the time, recalls participating in drills at school in which students crouched under desks to increase their chances of survival during a nuclear attack.

Years later, in the 1980s, I went through similar drills at school, but it was to protect students against falling debris in the event of a tornado or earthquake.

To me, outside of a muscle-bound boxer that gave Rocky Balboa all he could handle, the Soviet Union didn’t seem like much of a threat. It was a just a place that got very, very cold in the winter.

In 1991, after negotiations between the two governments, the U.S. and Russia signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce and limit their nuclear weapons.

Missile launch control facilities throughout the Great Plains closed, including one in Philip, S.D., about 70 miles east of Rapid City where I live. It was turned into a museum and is now owned by the National Parks Service. For $6, a park ranger will give you a tour of Launch Control Facility Delta-01 Compound.

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The entrance to Launch Control Facility Delta-01 Compound in Philip, S.D.


Our tour guide, a young man named Ted, met my wife and me at the entrance of the compound, which is still protected by a chain-link fence. Everything was just like the military left it in 1993 when the site closed, down to the typewriters and faded issues of Time Magazine.
We walked past the officer’s sleeping quarters and into a factory-like cage elevator. Ted bolted the door twice — multiple layers of security are commonplace throughout the facility — and we were lowered into a bunker, fortified by concrete thick enough to withstand a nuclear attack.

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The entrance to the bunker.

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Two officers stayed in this room 24 hours a day between 1963 and 1993.

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In the event of an attack, the red box would have been unlocked, allowing officers to fire missiles at the Soviet Union.

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The door to this silo would have blasted off, allowing the missile to fire.

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Until the 1990s, the silo contained a fully operational Minuteman Missile.

In the middle of the room, there’s a red box on the wall that reads: ENTRY RESTRICTED TO MCC DUTY. It’s secured by two Master Locks. In the event of an attack, Ted said, two Air Force officers would have opened it simultaneously to launch missiles at targets in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China. 

As the tour came to a close, Ted told us about the handful of times that a miscalculation almost led to war or, using his preferred term, “mutual destruction.” Both sides experienced radar failures during the Cold War that made it appear as if they were under attack, but chose not to fire because they couldn’t be certain.

It was only through extreme restraint, Ted says, that “mutual destruction” was avoided.

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How Donald Trump made my vacation spot an international story

As the results came in on election night and it became increasingly likely that Donald Trump would become the next president of the United States, a few friends who knew I was out of the country jokingly asked whether I was coming back.

I was in Taiwan, a place that — unlike the Chinese mainland — had received little if any attention during the 2016 race. What a difference a few weeks make.

Last week Trump and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-Wen spoke on the phone, breaking four decades of diplomatic protocol and setting off a firestorm with China, which regards Taiwan as a renegade province. Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, and since then no U.S. president has spoken directly to his Taiwanese counterpart.

Policy experts and China watchers are still debating whether Trump was unaware the call could cause a crisis or did it intentionally, as a way of sending a message to Beijing that the U.S. president can talk to any world leader, whenever he wants.

With U.S.-Taiwan relations in the spotlight, I thought I’d share something I picked up as a souvenir. The day after the election, I bought a couple of local newspapers in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to see how they covered the election.

The Apple Daily, the second-largest paper in Tawain, published a special section on the results, in addition to several more pages on Clinton, the protests that followed, and a racy image from Melania Trump’s modeling days.

Lady in red

Trees in bloom at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park.

Spring is a popular time for photo shoots at the Yuan Dynasty City Wall Park in Beijing. The trees are in full bloom, and when the wind blows, white and pink petals float down on the heads of passers-by. On blue sky days, engaged couples flock to the park in their suits and white gowns to have their pictures taken.

I passed this young woman on a recent afternoon, dressed in a traditionally inspired red gown for a photo shoot. Walking in that dress without any help has to be difficult.

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Postcards from Chengdu 

A statue of Chairman Mao Zedong looks over Tianfu Square, in the center of Chengdu.

A statue of Chairman Mao Zedong looks over Tianfu Square, in the center of Chengdu.

Chendgu is the provincial capital of Sichuan province, which is known for its spicy food.

Chendgu is the provincial capital of Sichuan province, which is known throughout the world for its spicy food.

Chengdu is well know for its street food. Here, a vendor sells snacks at a restaurant on Jinli Pedestrian Street, a popular tourist site.

A vendor sells snacks at a restaurant on Jinli Pedestrian Street, a popular tourist area.

The entrance to a temple fair, held to celebrate Chinese New Year.  2015 is the Year of the Sheep.

The entrance to a temple fair, held to celebrate Chinese New Year. 2015 is the Year of the Sheep.

Vendors from western China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sell lamb skewers at the temple fair.

Vendors from western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sell lamb skewers at the temple fair.

The city at night. With 14 million people, Chengdu is the largest city in Sichuan province.

With 14 million people, Chengdu is the largest city in Sichuan province.

The panda is the national animal of China, and there’s no shortage of shops in Chengdu selling stuffed toys, T-shirts and coffee mugs featuring the animal.

Let’s (hopefully) get it on!

It’s a chilly weekday afternoon at the Chengdu Panda Breeding Research Base, but a huge crowd is gathered around a large enclosure to get a closer look at China’s national animal. There are signs posted throughout the base asking visitors to be quiet around the creatures, yet the throngs of children perched atop their parents’ shoulders are repeatedly shouting “xiong mao,” the Chinese word for panda.

Pandaheads watching the real thing.

The animals seem to be playing to the crowd as they chomp on bamboo shoots. They crack the long sticks with their mouths, as if they were toothpicks, while onlookers record their every bite with camera phones. Visitors are packed so tightly around the enclosure that a security officer stands on a chair and yells for everyone to move along. It’s not exactly an intimate environment for an animal that has so much trouble getting, well, intimate.

Must … keep … eating … bamboo.

There are many factors that make it difficult for pandas to breed, not the least of which is that females are only fertile for 24 to 36 hours every year. For male pandas averse to responsibility, it’s a dream come true. But for advocates of the endangered animal who want to ensure its survival, it’s a major roadblock to growing their numbers. There are an estimated 1,600 pandas in the wild, all found in China. The Chengdu breeding base was established in 1987 to further the Chengdu Zoo’s conservation efforts. The base is a huge, beautiful facility; even the “quick” tour suggested on a sign near the entrance takes a couple of hours. I went in the afternoon, when most of the pandas were sleeping — they’re most active in the morning. There are images and symbols of the animal at every turn: panda paw prints guide you from one exhibition to the next; stuffed pandas hang from trees smiling down at you; even in the bathroom, there’s a picture at the urinal of a panda giving a thumbs up and asking guests to “Please Aim Carefully.”

Good advice, panda.

Here, there’s no such thing as overkill when it comes to promoting the endangered species. And, when it comes to motivating the animals to get busy, there’s no method that’s too bizarre. In 2006, officials at a zoo in Thailand prepared a DVD of pandas having intercourse to show Chuang Chuang and Lin Hu, a couple that was having difficulty mating, in hopes that it would get the animals in the mood. In another case, a male panda named “Strong Strong” was given a dose of the male enhancement drug Viagra. Sadly, the BBC reported, he “did not live up to his name.” In the animal kingdom, sometimes it’s “Survival of the Horniest” — not the fittest — that determines the fate of a species.

China’s block party

One day last year, during a bout of homesickness, I tried to log onto kentucky.com to catch up on news from my home state in the U.S. Kentucky.com is the website for one of the state’s flagship papers, the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The page wouldn’t load. I assumed it was a connection error, so I checked my modem and refreshed the page. Still, it wouldn’t load. I knew that websites like Facebook, Twitter and Google were blocked in China, but the Lexington Herald-Leader? What does the Chinese government have against bourbon and college basketball?

I emailed a friend who works at the Herald-Leader, which is owned by The McClatchy Company, and he said it was possible that all of the company’s newspaper websites were blocked. The Herald-Leader had also recently published a story on the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese government considers to be a violent separatist, after he visited the state, so that could be the reason, he added.

To access the newspaper’s website, I had to use a virtual private network, or VPN, which allows Internet users in China to get around the “Great Firewall.” VPNs are illegal in China but have largely been tolerated until recently, when government interference made them harder to use.

A senior official with China’s Ministry of Information and Technology told local media last week that the crackdown on VPNs was a move to foster the “healthy development” of the country’s Internet.

If the last few years are any judge, “healthy development” means more censorship. Among the major news sites that have been blocked are the New York Times and Wall Street Journal (both published stories on the wealth of Communist party members and their families before the plug was pulled).

Instagram joined the long listed of social media sites banned on the mainland after the protests  in Hong Kong last fall. Google, which has long been at odds with the Chinese government, is no longer accessible, and Internet users can’t log into its email service, Gmail, without a VPN.

The ramped up censorship comes at a time when nearly 700,000 Chinese are studying abroad. Most (30 percent) attend college in the U.S., where they inevitably use Facebook to build their social networks and Google to research for coursework. It’s conceivable that, in a few years, these internationally savvy students will return home and connect to a Chinese Internet that is more closed off to the world than the one they left.

Despite the uptick in online censorship, not every website that gets the ax goes dark forever. The popular movie site IMDB (Internet Movie Database), which was blocked in 2010 after its homepage featured a preview of a documentary about the Free Tibet movement, was unblocked in 2013.

Earlier this week, while using the Internet without a VPN, I discovered another site that had been unblocked: kentucky.com.

I guess the Chinese government likes bourbon and college basketball after all.

Roast Duck Dynasty

Beijingers love their roast duck. It’s a dish that’s synonymous with the capital and has been served since imperial times.

There’s even a museum dedicated to Peking roast duck (北京鸭子), which walks visitors through its origins and, more interestingly, shows step-by-step how the animal goes from the farm to your dinner plate. The museum is located on the seventh floor of Quanjude (全聚德), one of Beijing’s most popular roast duck restaurants.

First, we see the ducks sunning under radiant blue skies, enjoying their last moments of freedom.

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Now in captivity, the ducks are fed to fatten them up, so they can later return the favor and fatten you up.

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Stubborn ducks that skip meals will not be tolerated.

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Once they’re nice and plump, things get serious and out comes the knife. Continue reading

Balancing baby: cute or cruel?

My grandfather Ed liked to balance babies — usually one of his grandchildren — on one hand. He’d hoist them within inches of a deer head mounted in his living room and chuckle, while they either gazed in curiosity or turned and whimpered at the sight of the animal’s antlers.

The Chinese man in the video below takes the balancing baby act to a whole new level, twisting and twirling the boy (who I assume to be his son) over his head and through his legs, much to the child’s delight. Continue reading

Snakes and alcohol don’t mix

I recently wrote a review of the world’s first bar dedicated to baijiu, a traditional Chinese rice liquor. Capital Spirits opened in August in Beijing, and offers more than 40 different varieties of baijiu.

Baijiu, which literally translates into “white liquor,” has been made in China for more than 5,000 years. The drink is generally 40 to 60 percent alcohol by volume, and its taste has been compared to bathroom cleaner and cheap perfume. Continue reading